In 2005, during my last semester in college, my mom starting sharing with me concerns about our community art center. She’d been a piano teacher there since the 80’s, and I practically grew up there, so the stories of bad management, canceled programs, and shrinking funding were pretty upsetting. The art center had limped along for the past 10 years, but this time it was in real danger of shutting down for good. All I could think was “I could fix that”.
As luck would have it, I applied for an unspecified, unposted position in their 2-person office just as the assistant was quitting (no assistant had remained beyond one year). I was hired part-time for minimum wage: there was no paperwork for me to fill out, no job description for me to review, I wasn’t even given a job title.
I arrived on my first day to a messy desk in a messier office. My only instructions were “answer the phone when the phone rings,” and, trust me, the phone didn’t ring. Every idea I had was shot-down, every suggestion I made was ignored. Is it any surprise that the office worker turnover was so high?
Faced with this rather unpleasant work environment, months behind on payroll, and the prospect that the center could close its doors for good, I did the unthinkable: I ignored my boss.
Sure I did the tiny amount of work she asked me to do, but I also did the work I thought was necessary to save the center. I didn’t do anything behind her back. I told her openly what I was working on and why. When she told me it was a waste of time, I kept doing it anyway.
I compiled years worth of data, benchmarking participation from donors and clients. I went through hundreds of unread evaluations. My work revealed shocking problems, but also clear ways to fix them.
I shared my findings with my boss, and she thought they were meaningless. I shared my findings with the board, and they gave me a standing ovation. I implemented my solution, and a year later I was running the organization. More importantly, the organization was still running.
Everything I did was risky, and it could have blown up in my face. Most of the board members were family friends, so I knew they were frustrated with my boss’s leadership. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so bold without believing I had approval from above. I was lucky that I had correctly calculated my boss’s response. I thought she’d be annoyed, and I knew she’d criticize, but I didn’t expect she’d put in the extra effort to punish me. She would have been well within her rights to reprimand me, well within her rights to fire me.
I took an unconventional approach to advancing my career – I built an organization. After 6 years of nonprofit management, I know there are countless organizations out there facing the same situation I found at our community art center. These organizations limp along from year to year. They can’t pay well, and they won’t recognize talent right away. Yet they are suffering from a leadership vacuum and crying out for a vibrant person to take the reins.
Creating a place for career advancement within a struggling nonprofit isn’t easy. It means building infrastructure, systems, relationships, and finding funding. You have to be dedicated to the mission, willing to seek out advice and find mentors, willing to work ridiculous hours, and deal with lots of egos. It will take years. But having come out the other side, I would do it all over again.
Not only did I have the opportunity to save a place that I love, but I now have the skills to work in many other fields: finance, fundraising, marketing, and HR. I know others arts leaders with similar stories. They stepped into dying arts organization and revitalized them, building their careers and their reputations along the way.
Claire Knowlton is the Executive Director of the Los Angeles based nonprofit McGroarty Arts Center. She has completed dozens of nonprofit management and leadership programs through prestigious organizations like Harvard, Indiana University, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and the Annenberg Foundation.